But is refillable milk actually better than cartons?
Refillable Oat m*lk has been top of our stock wish list for aaaages now. There are lots of companies offering it (ReRooted, Devon; Oato, Cumbria), but sadly none that worked for us (mostly due to being too far away). We also looked at making it with a Nutramilk machine in the shop, but came away deciding it was way too inefficient, and the feedback we heard was that the end product was no better than anything you could easily make up at home anyway.
As an interim measure, we brought in Minor Figures tetrapak cartons during the latest lockdown for a few reasons. Firstly we wanted to give people the chance to try it, as it really does taste awesome (in my humble opinion this is the best dairy alternative there is, both in taste, and in carbon footprint reduction), but also because we were increasingly being asked for it. It seems that oat m*lk, for a few of our customers at least, was the only thing they were having to go to a supermarket for. So imagine our delight when we saw that Minor Figures were launching a new refill station! Awesome! However, as always, we like to show due diligence with these things and investigate further before we wade on in! So, here's what we found...
The tetrapak cartons are happily fully recyclable in our area, so all of our local councils will take them away at the kerbside and turn them back into something else (when I refer to our local councils I have checked with Cherwell, South Northamptonshire, Stratford on Avon, West Oxfordshire and Daventry councils), so that's grand. In some parts of the UK it is still not possible to do this, thereby totally changing the outlook on this. The cartons each weigh 32g, plus the box outer for each 6 cartons.
The bag (which holds 10 litres of yummy oat m*lk goodness) weights 135g empty, plus the cardboard box in which it is delivered, saving approx 185g in weight. However, the bag itself is not recyclable, and would currently need to go to landfill, or be sent to Terracycle at our cost.
We currently sell our Tetrapak cartons at £1.75/1l, or £1.85/1l for the organic stuff. The refills cost us more at the moment as they are hand poured, so we would be selling 1l of the non organic m*lk for around the £2.00 mark. There are currently no imminent plans to offer the organic drink on refill. So it would, initially at least, be slightly more expensive to you for a refill, than to go with a tetrapak.
Well then there is the pergal machine (the big fridge thing that the milk dispenses from!). This obviously adds a huge footprint both in it's production, and in it's day to day use. It has to be left on continuously, meaning that energy is being used to keep the drink inside nice and cool. It doesn't use a massive load, and we are using renewables in the shop, but, this still has a considerable footprint nevertheless.
There is also food waste. Milk in a tetrapak can be stowed away in a cupboard for weeks or months before being opened and used up. Refills need to be used within 5 days, so this presents a problem of it's own. I know that some poeple will freeze their refills to use at a later date, which is a great option for those with the freezer space. We have a number of customer who have to travel to get to us, so will 'stock up' when they do, and refills may not be a great option for that with this in mind.
So what's the verdict then?
Well, it's certainly not as clear cut as we had first hoped! Whilst, at the moment, it seems unwise for us to move to refills (simply because we would be replacing something that is 100% recyclable with something that is not), there are reasons why this might change for us in the future.
On the pricing side, economies of scale mean that MF expect to be able to reduce their pricing over time. On the recycling side, they are also working on a returns system, so that shops are able to send back containers, and have their bags fully recycled. This has been the key to our decision, and so as soon as there becomes a viable recycling option for these bags, we will be taking another look at getting these in.
One thing I would add though, is that we absolutely love MF! Whilst we may not yet be in a position where the refill machines (in our opinion) offer a genuinely better option from a waste point of view, we are very much looking forward to a time when this changes. We will also be stocking their tetrapaks for the forseeable future until a better option comes along, which it will.
We are very much open to hearing your opinions on this as we know that it feels weird for us to say that the packaged option is the least wasteful in our area (as I said, this totally changes as soon as you cross borders into areas where tetrapaks are not recycled, in these areas I would say the refills are 100% the better option), trust me when I say that I have lost hours of my life mulling this over, investigating carbon footprints, asking questions, and weighing boxes! I have literally driven Vi mad! So tell us what you think and don't hold back!